Last month the Fayetteville-Manlius (N.Y.) High boys' cross-country team made history--and grabbed the national No. 1 ranking--by becoming the first team ever to sweep the first five spots at the prestigious Manhattan Invitational. That impressive result makes the boys from Manlius the favorites to make history again on Dec. 4, when they take part in the inaugural Nike Team Nationals cross-country championships at Oregon's Portland Meadows racetrack, the first national team championships in any traditional high school sport in the country.
Coach Bill Aris, who says his runners are of "average to slightly above-average talent," attributes his team's success to its embrace of the holistic "stotan" philosophy (for "stoic" and "Spartan") of Australian coaching legend Percy Cerutty. His star pupil was Herb Elliott, the 1960 Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters, who went undefeated at that distance. "The cornerstone of our program is putting team ahead of individual objectives," says Aris, whose runners proudly wear T-shirts printed with the word stotan and Elliott's picture.
The fact that the Hornets' role model is an Australian whose heyday was more than 40 years ago speaks to one reason why cross-country can use a high-profile event like the NTN. In part because Americans haven't performed particularly well internationally in distance running over the last few decades, cross-country gets precious little media attention and has no recognizable stars. Still, don't expect Nike to crank up its icon-making machinery next weekend. "We want to celebrate the sport's team aspect," says Joaquin Hidalgo, Nike's vice president of U.S. marketing. "The interesting thing about [team] cross-country is that the fifth-place finisher may be more important than the first-place finisher."
This is why: Though seven runners per team line up at the start, only the first five on the squad to cross the finish line score. First place overall gets one point, second gets two, 23rd gets 23 and so on. The team with the lowest point total wins. "You could have four great runners, but if the fifth guy finishes 150th you're going to lose," says Marc Bloom, editor of The Harrier, a cross-country magazine that produces the high school national rankings. To emphasize the team concept, Nike will award medals to the four best fifth-place finishers in each 5K race over its man-made one-mile course.
Both the boys' and the girls' races will be one-class events featuring the top two teams from eight regions, plus four wild cards. That means the Saratoga Springs High girls' team, an upstate New York dynasty that has been ranked No. 1 in the nation in 10 of the last 12 years, will line up against such dark horses as South Tahoe High, a relatively unheralded team that resides in California, competes in Nevada and is known, at least to its first-year coach, Dan Wilvers, as "the little lost children of the Sierra Nevada."
At the NTN, however, Wilvers's team will be known as the South Tahoe Cross-Country Club. Because the National Federation of High Schools doesn't recognize national team champions in any sport, each team entered in the NTN will participate as a club. Besides a new identity, Nike will also provide each team with airfare, lodging, uniforms, warmups, shoes and, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against the best runners in the nation. "I am most excited to see how we compare with the country's top girls," says Krista Eckert, a sophomore at Roosevelt High in Sioux Falls, one of two South Dakota girls' teams that made the cut. "We may never get another chance like this."
If the NTN is a success, others will.